It can't be easy for a sports-game developer to put a new spin on a popular franchise year after year. After all, the rules of games like football and basketball are already set in stone, so you have to find new ways to innovate to keep the gameplay fresh on an annual schedule. Luckily, the team behind EA Sports' NBA Live 06 has brand-new hardware to work with in the Xbox 360, and here to tell us what will set the 360 version apart from the current-gen games is producer Tim Tschirner.
GameSpot: What are you hoping to accomplish with your first next-generation basketball game?
Tim Tschirner: I think first and foremost we have set out to make a game that is able to show off what the hardware allows us to do with a basketball game while also giving fans a taste of what's to come in the future in next-generation gaming. When we began our development process of this game, we set out with three goals that everything we did for the past year was focused on--we wanted to make a game that looks next-gen, that feels next-gen, and that plays next-gen.
It's very simple. We were not going to port this game; we were going to reinvent the basketball video game experience and deliver a completely new experience, while of course not ignoring something like freestyle control that is a defining feature of the NBA Live series, which over the years helped us to build such a loyal and dedicated fan base.
I'm proud of the game we have made, but I also think we're just scratching the surface. This is a first look at what the future holds for next-gen gaming. The ultrarealistic player models, new broadcast-style camera angles, lighting, and new collisions and textures are all things we were never able to do before given the limitations of the hardware. Now we have a new system that we can learn from and continue to try to build the most authentic simulation basketball game ever created--with every NBA player playing and feeling like they do in real life.
GS: How much of NBA Live 06 for the Xbox 360 is new from the ground up? What aspects have you rebuilt, and how can we expect those areas of the game to be improved?
TT: We went into this project knowing that we wanted to rebuild the foundation of the game from the ground up. Porting over our current-gen game was never an option, because that never would have put us in a position to maximize the hardware in the years to come and ultimately deliver fans the best basketball gaming experience.
I like to think of what we did as the equivalent of rebuilding the foundation of a house. We wanted to get the foundation right so we could continue to improve and grow and add on to the core architecture of the game in the years to come.
With NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360, the core game architecture has completely been rebuilt. That means that the visuals are completely new as well as all the game modes and our new system of being "in the game all the time" where there are no load times and you can play while you wait. That's a completely new way of playing sports video games and something that required a complete rewrite and a totally new way of thinking about how NBA Live was built. Our arenas are rebuilt and are authentic down to the screws in the seats and the JumboTrons. Player models and faces also offer a completely new look to the series.
In gameplay, we have taken what works and what's familiar in NBA Live and enhanced it, and we've taken what needed fixing and gotten rid of it. We bring you the freestyle control but made significant enhancements to the gameplay to ensure that new real-life "rag doll" physics allow for a new physical brand of basketball. There are now real collisions like in real-life basketball, not the scenarios that were written into the old logic. Collisions now feel more real and more physical.
We'll continue to rebuild the house to create the greatest game on the market. We didn't have time to rebuild every aspect of the game from scratch, and we know we need to open up new rooms in the years to come. The way we have built this game will now allow that, which means nothing but great things for the future of the platform.
GS: How do you compare developing for the 360 with developing for the original Xbox?
TT: It really depends on what year you are thinking of in the life cycle of the current-gen systems. This experience this year has been completely different than development from NBA Live 04 to NBA Live 05, where we had a strong foundation and were very familiar with the hardware and were simply trying to maximize what we could do on the Xbox and PS2 as we added new gameplay enhancements and deep new modes like All-Star Weekend.
This game has been very much like starting over and building a brand-new game. We were starting with a blank slate and trying to brainstorm and figure out how we could rebuild this game from the ground up and truly make a game that would be next-gen and not just a port of the current-gen game. The feeling has been similar from when we went from PlayStation to PS2 as we continue to discover new things about the box and challenge ourselves to do all the things we've always wanted to do over the years but just didn't have a piece of hardware to build a game for that would allow it.
Making NBA Live for Xbox 360 is about allowing us to do what we have always wanted us to do and putting us in a position to continue to do so over the life of the platform. A great example is with the visuals--we always have internal targets that we are trying to reach with visuals but never quite get there. This year, for the first time, we've exceeded our visual targets. The final product actually looks better than what we had even targeted months ago. That's exciting stuff.
GS: How will NBA Live 06 for the Xbox 360 take advantage of the new online features in Xbox Live for the 360?
TT: We're excited to be online in every version of NBA Live 06 for the first time ever in the series (North America, Europe, Asia). With Global Play, people in San Francisco can match up with people in Germany and Tokyo. That's a very exciting step forward for us.
This game also now redefines the experience of playing online. The big difference this year is that we're online all the time. You no longer have to sign in--now once you create a profile, the minute you turn on the machine you're online and in the game. You sign in once and you're online.
Add this to our support of Xbox Live, where we have quick match, leaderboards, roster downloads, and more, and you have an exciting online experience that will connect NBA Live gamers from around the globe.
I think we have a huge opportunity in the next few years to unlock even more potential with the online experience.
GS: If you could point to one specific feature of Live 06 as truly indicative of "next-generation" consoles, which feature would it be and why?
TT: Sorry, but I have to point to two. First, I think the way we offer a whole new feeling of being "in the game all the time" is something that completely changes the way you experience this game. You turn on the game and are immediately in the experience and not having to navigate through menu screens. It sets the stage for a completely new intuitive experience--where you can shoot, dunk, play minigames, select your game options, etc. You're playing the game while it loads, and the game is the star. To me, this is what next-gen is all about. It's new, it's different, it's easy to pick up and play, and it offers a new concept and a new way of thinking about your gaming experience.
Next is the visuals. You may not think of this as a specific "feature," but I think what is happening and where we can go truly speaks to what "next generation" gaming really is and what it can be in the future.
People expect great visuals with the new Xbox, but I'm still amazed at what we as an NBA Live team and we as EA have been able to do in the first year of this console. If you compare this to what we were able to do in year one of the PS2, it's night and day. Players are finally coming to life, so much so that I think it even becomes an emotional experience for the gamer because it feels like these players are really alive and you are playing as the stars of the NBA.
This stuff looks real. And I think people who are gamers and people who don't even know much about video games are going to be blown away and start to realize what the potential here is.
GS: How did the idea for the pickup-game load screen come about? Also, how soon before every EA Sports game follows your lead and includes this feature?
TT: As I mentioned earlier, this is an exciting new feature for us and I think really sets the stage of the next-gen gaming experience when you boot up NBA Live on the Xbox 360. This is something that came about soon after we were done with NBA Live 05 and kicked off development for NBA Live 06. This was an early strategic decision to find a way to rebuild this game and start with something that would drop you right into the experience and make the game feel different than anything we had ever done in the past.
When we talk about wanting to make a game that "feels next-gen," we think our practice gym at the start of the game really speaks to this core objective. It feels new. It feels different. And it's intuitive.
We asked ourselves as a development team, "How can we take a sports game that has so many traditions that we don't want to lose, but also present the basketball experience in a different way so that it actually feels like next-gen?" As we were brainstorming, we said, "Wouldn't it be fantastic if you could actually be in the game all the time from the moment when you booted up the game? How cool would it be if you could actually play while you were waiting and there were no outdated-looking menu screens or load times?" The whole team, from producers to artists to the engineers and programmers, were excited by the challenge and excited to find a way to pull it off. So the whole concept was born out of brainstorming and the focused desire to make this game feel different.
Obviously I think the goal for all of EA's next-gen titles is to maximize the hardware and offer fans a new experience. With this feature in Live, we thought and hoped it would resonate with fans, and the early feedback is that it has. I can't speak to what will happen on other games from EA, but this is an exciting step forward for this franchise.
GS: The player models are obviously a big step up for the series, but is there a graphical feature in the game--lighting, frame rate, textures, and so on--that you are particularly proud of that might not be as obvious to players?
TT: That's a great question because there are so many things--both big and small--that we are able to do on this new platform that I think are going to be exciting for fans. And this is just year one on the Xbox 360. I hope a lot of our innovations are obvious, but I know there are a lot of subtle nuances that may not be as noticeable the first time you pick up the game but ultimately are things that add to the overall impact of the game.
You mention player models, but there's definitely so much more even with just the players themselves. It's the poly count on the player faces that is a huge leap from what we could do on next-gen; there's the textures of their jerseys that is authentic (we capture the proper texture from all the teams in the NBA--whether it's the Mavs or Miami or Denver or San Antonio); there's sweat mapping that gives us the ability to not just include the sheen of sweat you would expect from an athlete after they've been playing but also the actual sweat dropping down their faces and all over their bodies. With the player uniforms we also have real-physics cloth animation for jerseys and shorts, while hair animation is especially noticeable on guys like Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki when they move around the court and take jump shots.
Apart from the actual players, I'm incredibly proud of our environments, with every arena modeled to the finest detail. Look at the courts, and you'll see detail right down to the individual planks on the hardwood floor. We have depth of field with the crowds, and the atmospheric fog we've added breaks up the arena lights and lens flares and gives and offers the true feeling you get when you walk in an NBA arena.
Again, when we set out to make this game, we didn't want it to just feel like better graphics on a current-gen game. We wanted to re-create real basketball in a video game. And we wanted to build a proper foundation to offer the most realistic and authentic basketball experience. What we're able to do visually really sets that tone for this being a next-gen experience.
GS: Some modes aren't making it into the 360 version of NBA Live 06. How did you decide what features made or missed the cut?
TT: Those were tough decisions for us, but I think we've made the right ones. Right from the start of development, we knew it wasn't going to be easy to cut anything from what people had grown to love in the current-gen game, but we knew if we were going to make it from scratch and not just port it over that there were going to be things that were left out.
We started by looking at the essentials of a basketball game. Of course, we needed the five-on-five gameplay to be top-notch. That had to be a primary focus--getting the gameplay right, making players move around the court, run authentic offenses and defenses, set screens, look and feel athletic, and accurately replicate NBA basketball. To innovate the gameplay we were able to triple our animations, build the finely detailed and authentic visuals and environments we talked about, and make superstars play like superstars. We also thought that as a gamer I would want a season mode--one season where you can guide a team through a season and try to win the championship. We wanted it to have good logic, a real good sim engine, and long-term playability. Online was another focus. And finally create a player, which is always a very popular feature with NBA Live, so that fans can put themselves or friends in the game or create other favorite players that may not be in the game when it ships.
We decided that given our development time and the goals we were trying to achieve that those were the modes that were going to be the most critical to shipping a quality game and that we could build on this feature set in the future.
GS: What are your thoughts regarding the fan reception of the freestyle superstar controls in the Xbox and PS2 versions of the game? Can players expect freestyle superstar controls, or a variation thereof, in the Xbox 360 NBA Live series?
TT: Freestyle superstars is a very cool feature and has helped NBA Live on current-gen try to tap into all the potential of the current-gen hardware. It's a lot of fun to play and helps portray star players as their real-life counterparts. This philosophy is no different on next-gen, where our goal is for every player to play exactly like they do in real life--so that Vince Carter dunks like Vince Carter and Dwyane Wade drives the lane like Dwyane Wade would in real life and that Ray Allen can shoot threes like Ray Allen can. While the Xbox 360 game does not put those controls in your hands as the current-gen game does, we share many of the same animations, and the skills for these superstar players are the same across platforms. Those crazy behind-the-back passes you see Steve Nash make in current-gen are going to be possible in the Xbox 360 game as well. In their own ways, both games celebrate the superstars of the NBA and bring them to life.
In the future, I think we will continue to try to find ways to bring the stars to life and continue to give players the control they have come to love with NBA Live.
GS: If you had to guess, what features will be the defining characteristics of this upcoming console generation beginning with the Xbox 360, and how do you feel the NBA Live series will benefit from these features?
TT: Looking at it from my perspective today, it's hard to look past the overall look of the games on this generation. I think this generation will be defined by how close to real life things can really look in a game. We now have the power at our fingertips that we can make these players behave and feel alive, and not that you are just controlling pixels on the screen but that you are actually controlling Dwyane Wade or Vince Carter or Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James.
What results is more than just you being affected by how it looks, but you become emotionally involved on a whole new level because it is so true to life. The result is that the games give a whole new perspective on their looks but also how they play and how they feel.
GS: Can you talk about where you see the NBA Live series at the peak of the 360's life span (in, say, 3 to 5 years)? What kind of previously unheard of features might be part of the series?
TT: We sit here today with so many great ideas of things we want to be able to do over the next few years. But as great as our ideas are, it's hard to even know how much more than that we'll be able to accomplish.
As a development team, you always have sort of this dream wish list of things we want to do with the game. Talking with our programmers, they all go, "Yeah, this is cool, but we can't do it because the hardware doesn't have the power." Now, a lot of those barriers have been removed, and it opens up a completely new level of creativity, and we can do things we were never able to do. It's exciting to be right there, cutting-edge with the future. If you think about it, a couple years back we'd had PS2 for a couple years, and it was "what's next?" Every so often you have to remind yourself that things like this come up, and if you look at the evolution of video games, we're still in the Stone Age. But this now brings it up to a level that if you think about what we had 10 years ago, no one would have thought this was possible.
So who knows what the next few years will bring. But even if I did know, I'm not sure I'd want to give it away right now. You'll have to check back next year!